It's strange if not unusual to read a book where you never actually meet the main character face-to-face as it were. I'm trying to think of others and suddenly I can't because my mind is just brimming with thoughts on this book, I can hardly think beyond it right now, but I expect all of you will.
My only perspective on Dr Harold Klein was mediated through the eyes of his daughter Betsy and recounted as Harold lies dying in end-stage renal failure after routine surgery to repair a broken arm.Things seem to have gone horribly wrong as Harold submits to the ministrations of his medical colleagues.
The Rowing Lesson by Anne Landsman is one of those bench-mark books, a dazzlingly elegiac read and the current trend for half-of-something on the cover lives on, this time half a boat rather than half a person.
It's a deft and clever exploration of a life lived through the eyes of one who actually wasn't around for a great deal of it. Betsy, newly pregnant, has made the trip from New York to Cape Town to sit with her comatose father in his final days and imagines his life right back to his childhood in a Jewish shop-keeping family, living amongst the white Afrikaaner population in South Africa.
In 1939 Harold enters medical training at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, eventually marries radiographer Stella and then, on the advice of his father-in-law becomes a GP.
This will hearten all the GP's out there; urging Harold in a letter to travel to England his father-in-law suggests,
'I find that the General Practitioner or what we used to call the "family doctor" who qualify in South Africa is found wanting. Very few doctors are born "General Practitioners," the rest grope blindly in the dark, in spite of the fact that some of them possess superior knowledge and are far above the average. In England, on the other hand this handicap or drawback is not so prominent. The average English General Practitioner possesses polish, manner and poise, the English doctor's bedside manner is well known and appreciated...'
I had to second guess whether Harold took that advice and eventually suspected not as he settled down to life in rural South Africa.
Loved by all as Doctor God it is left to Betsy to reveal the reality behind the facade and what emerges is a doctor who cares for his patients with a visceral passion but one who lacks many of those sensibilities that would make a likeable man of him too. I've worked with scores of GPs down the years and patients often used to tell me that they divided them into two varieties, go to Doctor A if you want someone to be nice to you, go to Doctor B if you actually want to know what's wrong with you.
Fortunately, and perhaps thanks in part to another Harold, Doctor S, (Shipman for those who may be unaware) I think we now have a healthy number of Doctor A+B = C.
Betsy portrays her father as a man of power, controlling, brash and uncompromising, frequently an embarrassment, a man with a huge and self-aggrandizing personality. One of those people we probably all know, give them a space, no matter how large and they will fill it. But at those moments throughout the book when Betsy removes Harold from his familiar territory, he is the proverbial fish out of water, and you suspect a personality largely unsustainable without its props.
Meeting Stella's father for the first time a fine example
'...the Old Man's gaze scraping you like sandpaper.Are you good enough? Are you big enough? Your name and college, sir. This warden of all wardens has cracked the shell of this year's confidence, shaking the fragile mannikin of selfhood that you've patched together on the eve of becoming a doctor.'
Betsy traces Harold's life back to his childhood, recounting it all as an intimate conversation with her father and Anne Landsman cleverly draws out all those moments that may have made him into the man he is as she builds up a portrait for the reader of a character it is truly difficult to love.Yet of course Betsy does love him but it's a love tempered with misgivings and a great deal of uncertainty.
Anne Landsman pushes the boundaries of narrative that little bit further, nothing tired or weary about this writing, it is vibrant and involving and, at those rare moments when I could drag myself out and step back from it, I marvelled at her style as I read. The imagery of Betsy's first rowing lesson at Ebb 'n Flow with her father beautifully played out as she in turn metaphorically rows this most complex and difficult of men out on his soul's final journey.
More information on Anne Landsman and a fascinating article in this month's Red magazine which has given me a whole new perspective on an amazing book.
In my humble opinion this one deserves to win prizes...someone, somewhere, please.